Library Director’s Notebook
Ordinarily, as a reader or movie-goer, I shy away from disaster stories. Perhaps it’s because stories of famous disasters seem to have an element of voyeurism to them, akin to rubber-necking to get a better view of a car wreck. Yet reading Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson has shown me that in the hands of a tireless researcher and gifted writer, even a disaster tale that has been told and speculated upon countless times can have a fresh perspective and a powerful impact.
Erik Larson has made a career of exploring true stories from multiple points of view. In one of his books The Devil in the White City, he examines the achievements of a gifted architect, alongside the atrocities of a serial killer. In another, Thunderstruck, he reveals the life of a visionary inventor whose work will end up capturing a clever and overly confident murderer. In Dead Wake, Larson uses actual journals, letters, court depositions, and other original source material to bring us into the lives of people whose worlds would be changed forever with the sinking of the Lusitania.
Focusing especially on William Thomas Turner, Captain of the ill-fated Lusitania and German U Boat Commander Walther Schwieger, Larson shows how in times of war, even what most would describe as brutal and inhumane, can be seen as glorious and daring by those on “the other side” in combat. With the sinking of the Lusitania, nearly twelve hundred died, many of them innocent passengers, including children, yet the prevailing mood in Germany after the sinking was one of exaltation. Commander Schwieger was honored for his action.
In an ironic twist, there were many in the British navy who wished to blame Captain Turner for the sinking of his ship by a German U boat. There were no honors or words of thanks for his bravery, but instead a humiliating trial, which although it found him completely innocent of any negligence, left him an embittered man. Larson’s investigations make him posit that it was the strategies and errors in the British navy’s secret service that led them to try to scapegoat Captain Turner, thus turning public attention away from their own failures. Young Winston Churchill then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty seems to have been particularly perverse in hounding Turner and keeping inaccuracies alive decades after the event.
But even more than the story of the men commanding the ship and the U boat, Dead Wake, is the story of the passengers whose lives were irreparably changed by the sinking of the Lusitania. Whether playboy millionaire, successful book seller, bohemian artist, enthusiastic suitor, eager young lady, or small boy, the many men, women and children who boarded the Lusitania for her last, fateful voyage were all caught up in their own concerns, joys, worries, and dreams. Using their diaries and letters as well as the recollections of survivors, Larson brings us close to their last few days, making the tragedy of the sinking of the Lusitania more than just an impersonal slice of wartime history.